After James Arness died some months back, I watched several Gunsmoke re-runs. One of the lessons I learned was that if you leave Dodge City and go out onto the prairie, you’d better take a shovel with you. You never know when you’re going to have to bury some body you just happen to run across.
In the Gunsmoke episodes every time someone is buried out in the prairie or on a family farm, whether the deceased is a beloved grandmother or a brutal murderer, they are treated the same. The grave is dug; the body is deposited; the earth is replaced; the grave mound is rounded and patted down, a line of rocks is placed around the perimeter of the mound. Then the final touch. A makeshift cross, usually made from small tree limbs, is placed at one end of the mound. In none of the episodes was there a person or a group that declared that sacred act contrary to the Constitution of the United States.
I was struck that unlike so much of TV today, there are many of life’s lessons to be learned by watching Gunsmoke. Here are a few of them:
A promise made is a promise kept. In the first episode that Festus Hagan appears, he promises Matt that he will help him track down his [Festus’s] uncle who is wanted for murder. “When a Hagan gives his word, it sticks, and when he shakes on it, it sticks like fleas on a dog.”
As human beings, we all have responsibilities to each other. Again Festus, speaking in a later episode. “It’d be a hard world if’n nobody never hepped nobody.”
The will to live and self preservation are the strongest instincts. Matt Dillon and Chester are counseling a young man whose wife died and his farm house burned down. He has just about given up on life. Chester says,”Nobody lives forever…. The thing is you gotta live all you can while you can.” Matt follows up with, “You get a job and you work and you eat and sleep like everybody else.”
We are a nation of laws not men. In an episode of Gunsmoke, a couple of totally disreputable characters are killed by a young gunman. Matt arrests him. The young man says that he did right by killing them. “You would have just had to hang ‘em anyway,” the man says. Matt response is “I don’t hang anybody. The law does. There’s something that you gotta learn is that no man lives by his own rules.”
Sure, many of the old TV shows, Gunsmoke included, looked at the world through rose colored glasses. Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Dr. Kildaire, Maverick are all shows that are often nowadays spoken of with derision. “Those shows were not realistic. Nobody’s family is as perfect as Ozzie and Harriet,” we hear. Or, “The bad guys always die in the end and the good guys win and get the girl. That doesn’t happen in real life.”
Of course, they were not realistic. They were fiction. They were meant to entertain, but who’s to say that we shouldn’t be entertained by the ideal family or by a fictional marshal who lived by a set of noble ideals that seem to have been forgotten during my lifetime. Now we watch TV shows in which children mock their parents and adults play musical beds. We watch movies in which the hero turns out to be Hannibal Lechter, a cannibal.
Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I just long for the day when men were men and honorable, and women were noble and guided their children’s moral upbringing.
“Gee whiz, Wally, I’m just trying to make sense of the world.”
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